The worst Hall of Famers and why I'm against kicking anyone out

As someone who writes often about the Hall of Fame, I’m accustomed to readers asking about the worst players in Cooperstown. I generally shy away from writing about this. One of the benefits of independent blogging is the control one has over their writing topics and I generally prefer to focus on more positive subject matter. I’ll admit it, too. As someone who’s grown more in favor of a large Hall of Fame through five years of researching and writing about baseball history through this website, I also am not hugely motivated to decry a few lousy players being in. I’d rather focus on worthy players who aren’t yet enshrined.

That said, as anyone who’s been around this site awhile may know, others here have written about this topic before. Recently with the help of the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, I took another look. I found 20 Hall of Famers who rank for one stat, Wins Above Average as the worst players enshrined. While I wouldn’t suggest any stat offers definitive proof in this regard, the results here struck me. A lot of these players are the usual candidates in these exercises.

Here’s what I found:

Lowest Wins Above Average, Hall of Fame position players

  1. Lloyd Waner, -2.1 WAA in 1,993 games
  2. Tommy McCarthy, 0.2 WAA in 1,273 games
  3. Ray Schalk, 4.5 WAA in 1,762 games
  4. High Pockets Kelly, 4.5 WAA in 1,623 games
  5. Bill Mazeroski, 4.7 WAA in 2,163 games
  6. Rick Ferrell, 5.9 WAA in 1,884 games
  7. Rabbit Maranville, 7.6 WAA in 2,670 games
  8. Lou Brock, 8.2 WAA in 2,616 games
  9. Red Schoendienst, 8.4 WAA in 2,216 games
  10. Jim Bottomley, 9 WAA in 1,991 games

Some of the usual suspects abound here. Bill James, among others, has suggested Tommy McCarthy may be the worst Hall of Famer. People sometimes defend Bill Mazeroski’s selection by saying he did more than hit the winning homer in the 1960 World Series, that he was a great defensive second baseman as well. But he’s one of the worst hitters enshrined. By sabermetrics, Mazeroski’s bat more or less offsets his glove, with Mazeroski saving 147 defensive runs above average but being worth -162 runs below average at the plate. That’s third-worst among Hall of Fame position players behind Maranville at -228 runs below average and Luis Aparicio at -197 runs below average.

Voting shenanigans helped get at least three of the position players above their plaques. The Veterans Committee may have enshrined Rick Ferrell in 1984 after a sympathetic player called several members in hopes of keeping Ferrell from being shut out in votes. I’ve heard Ted Williams and Stan Musial, while on the committee, made a deal for their respective ex-teammates Bobby Doerr and Red Schoendienst to be enshrined. Then there’s High Pockets Kelly, who essentially got in because ex-teammates Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry were members of the 1973 Veterans Committee.

Frisch, notorious for looking down on later-generation players, said Kelly “had a better arm than any of today’s stars.” Another member of the Veterans Committee that voted Kelly in, Waite Hoyt, said Kelly was the first first baseman sent to the outfield to relay throws to home plate. Bad Hall of Famers are sometimes defended as the first of something. Tommy McCarthy is said to have invented the hit and run play. My friend Jacob Pomrenke, a SABR member who researches the Black Sox, said Ray Schalk was the first catcher to backup first and third base on throws.

A few people made this list because of late declines. Lou Brock retired with 3,000 hits and the stolen base record, though he had -6.4 WAA over his final five seasons, dropping him within range here. Same goes for Maranville, who was worth -9.2 WAA over his final 10 seasons, though interestingly, he received MVP votes five of those years. Then there’s Jim Bottomley. It’s been said Branch Rickey had a knack for knowing when to sell off aging players. Bottomley had 15 WAA when Rickey traded the 32-year-old first baseman in December 1932. Bottomley compiled -5.9 WAA thereafter.

Lowest Wins Above Average, Hall of Fame pitchers

  1. Catfish Hunter, 5.8 WAA in 3,449.1 IP
  2. Rollie Fingers, 7 WAA in 1,701.1 IP
  3. Rube Marquard, 8.8 WAA in 3,306.2 IP
  4. Herb Pennock, 9.4 WAA in 3,571.2 IP
  5. Jesse Haines, 10.3 WAA in 3,208.2 IP
  6. Bruce Sutter, 10.8 WAA in 1,042 IP
  7. Burleigh Grimes, 14.2 WAA in 4,180 IP
  8. Red Ruffing, 15.1 WAA in 4,344 IP
  9. Bob Lemon, 15.1 WAA in 2,850 IP
  10. Jack Chesbro, 16 WAA in 2,896.2 IP

It’s interesting to see Catfish Hunter atop this list, as he had an MLB-best 111 wins from 1971 through 1975 with a 2.65 ERA and 294 innings a year on average during that span. Hunter’s heavy workload was his undoing, as it was for many pitchers in the ’70s when usage rates for starters reached their highest point since the Deadball Era. [One example, per the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool: No pitcher has faced 1,200 batters in a season since Charlie Hough in 1987; it happened 63 times during the ’70s.] Hunter’s low WAA is partly because he threw his last pitch at 33. My friend Adam Darowski also said Hunter’s WAA is lower because he had elite defenses in Oakland and New York.

Most of the other starting pitchers here, in fact, were part of marquee teams as well. Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing both pitched extensively for the Murderers Row-era New York Yankees. Jesse Haines was a teammate of Frankie Frisch on the Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals and, like Kelly, got into Cooperstown during Frisch’s Veterans Committee tenure. Bob Lemon won 20 games seven of his 13 seasons, though that’s partly because his team, the Cleveland Indians finished second or better seven times during his career.

Rube Marquard was key to the New York Giants during their pennant runs of the early 1910s, though the day the Veterans Committee voted him in might be the darkest in Hall of Fame history. I wrote last week of how the committee, led by Frisch railroaded in Marquard and six other players on January 31, 1971. Marquard wasn’t a former teammate of Frisch but he had no business getting a plaque and his selection reeks of cronyism. Aside from his splendid 1911-13 run, Marquard was rarely more than a journeyman, being worth -1.7 WAA with a 128-149 record his other 15 seasons. His 103 ERA+ is the worst of any Hall of Fame pitcher.

That being said, I’m not in favor of kicking anyone out. I wrote as much in noting the circumstances of Marquard’s enshrinement, saying it’d be cruel to remove anyone from Cooperstown and that there are worse things in life than a few lousy players being enshrined. I sent a link to my piece on to Fox Sports columnist Rob Neyer, hoping he’d pick it up. He did, even mentioning me by name in his piece, though it wasn’t the most flattering note. Rob wrote:

Yes, of course there are worse things in life. There are LOTS AND LOTS of worse things in life. There are worse things in life than someone spitting on the sidewalk. That doesn’t mean we should excuse spitting on the sidewalk.

More to the point, how would it be cruel to kick Rube Marquard out of the Hall of Fame? He died almost 25 years ago. Whatever you might think of our postmortem fates, it seems highly unlikely that today ol’ Rube gives a damn about the Hall of Fame, one way or the other. His grandchildren? Okay, sure. But I really don’t think it’s our place to worry about an old ballplayer’s grandkids, who should be old enough by now to take something like this in stride. I certainly wouldn’t be averse to some procedure that reconsidered long-dead Hall of Famers. Or hell, at the very least, revising their plaques (and their Web pages) when they’re clearly in error.

I like Rob’s idea to revise error-ridden Hall of Fame plaques. He wrote his piece primarily about the errors on Alexander Cartwright’s plaque that perpetuate the myth he’s baseball’s true founder and that he codified its rules. Knowledgeable folks like John Thorn have long since debunked these myths, but so long as they’re hanging in the Hall of Fame and easily accessible on its website, I imagine people will keep laying hold of them. It certainly caused a stir in the comments when readers here recently declined to name Cartwright one of the 25 most important people in baseball history.

I have a harder time supporting removing players from Cooperstown, for a number of reasons. Speaking as someone who’s gotten comments here from relatives of High Pockets Kelly, the Meusel Brothers and others, family members do care and what’s wrong with that? I also think the removals could quickly get out of control. This Los Angeles Times piece in support of the idea reads as if written by someone traipsing through Baseball-Reference.com, picking players at random. I love Baseball-Reference.com, but snap judgments might be the worst thing that website enables, even if I doubt its founder Sean Forman has that intent.

I have two other reasons for not wanting to kick players out of Cooperstown and they’re the same two reasons I’m okay with steroid users eventually being enshrined. First, nothing in life is perfect. I don’t see the point in demanding this of the Hall of Fame. It’s still an awesome museum, one I haven’t been to since childhood and can’t wait to see again. Beyond this, much as I consider the Hall of Fame a celebration of baseball’s greatest players, I see it as a record of its history, all of it. And baseball’s history includes the history of Cooperstown. Letting players who never should have been enshrined keep their plaques serves a valuable purpose. It reminds voters to do better in the future.

A healthy compromise might be to develop an inner circle for the Hall of Fame. I had readers vote on a 50-player inner circle a few years ago that could offer a good start. Cooperstown could even make annual updates, perhaps voted on by fans to stir interest, allowing the inner circle to become progressively greater as more legends are enshrined. If the Hall of Fame wants my help on developing this further, I’ll provide it free of charge.

10 thoughts on “The worst Hall of Famers and why I'm against kicking anyone out”

  1. Why isn’t Jeff Kent getting higher voting numbers for the HOF? He is the best hitting second baseman of our time after Joe Morgan. Craig Biggio you have got to be kidding. A banjo hitter for mostly bad teams while Kent has great numbers for allot of good teams. Joe Gordon is in the HOF why not Kent

  2. sure there are players who should not be there–Tinker to Ever to Chance of the Cubs-Of those only Chance was actually a great–That said the Hall never has done enough for defense-I remember a discussion Stan Musial had with Ralph Kiner once-When Ralph begged Musial to talk to the Cardinal brass to trade for him–Musial asked him where would he Play? At the time Musial was in right Jerry Martin was in center and Enos Slaughter was in left–He told Kiner there was no place for him as he wasnt as good as any of us 3–Well Musial was clearly a hall of famer–Slaughter made it much later and was barely a hall of famer–Martin never did and he was easily the best fielder according to Musial Himself—Kiner was a first ballet Hall of famer for hitting Home Runs–Actually only 370 lifetime—But again Offense rules in the Hall of Fame–Not to those who played the game though!

  3. Graham-
    Agreed on not removing players from the Hall of Fame. Doing so seems silly and “wrong”. I’ve read the idea in probably in more than one place but it seems to me that a tiered system would be a logical solution. Like you mention in your article about an inner circle, but I think I’d prefer there to be multiple tiers… and the tiers wouldn’t be permanent. That is, once you’re in the HoF you’re in, but the level you’re in can change.

    @ Richard Wood-
    Agreed that Kent deserves serious consideration. Although I think Biggio had a better career; you can probably win more support for Kent if you didn’t try and take down Biggio at the same time.

  4. Graham, excellent column and good thinking. I agree, all focus should be on future adds, ensuring some number of deserving, but missed out, adds are done. The December 8 vote will be interesting. I journey to Cooperstown every year, the Museum, as a chronicle of baseball history, is the most vital role.

  5. @RaySossamon, Actually Ralph Kiner was not even close to a first-ballot (or ballet, though I don’t think he danced much) HoF’er (got in on his last possible chance). Just saying, for accuracy’s sake.

    Graham, what I think we can all agree on when it comes to the Hall of Fame (and I agree that it is ridiculous to consider removing people from it; let’s leave it to 1950s-1960s era Soviets to airbrush people out of the historical record) is that the voting as it stands now is dysfunctional at best. There needs to be a complete revamping of how players/managers/execs/Marvin Miller are to be elected. Leaving it solely in the hands of the baseball writing fraternity is demonstrably absurd.

  6. @JD — agreed. I think Bill James had the right idea in The Politics of Glory 20 years ago to create five separate voting blocs. Change is glacial with Cooperstown so maybe it could still happen.

    @Ray — Kiner’s a controversial Hall of Fame selection and needed 15 years on the ballot. That said, I can celebrate someone who led the league in homers his first seven seasons. That’s just unreal.

  7. “People sometimes defend Bill Mazeroski’s selection by saying he did more than hit the winning homer in the 1960 World Series, that he was a great defensive second baseman as well. ”
    Then his WAR and WAA would show that, right?

    Speaking of WAA, it certainly rewards those who quit early, like Drysdale and Koufax, and Joe Jackson. And penalizes those who stick around for awhile after their prime. (And there is nothing wrong with that. Some people love to criticize those who “stick around,” but It isn’t THEIR money that’s being lost by not playing.)

    ” It’s interesting to see Catfish Hunter atop this list, as he had an MLB-best 111 wins from 1971 through 1975.”
    OK, there’s five wonderful years. Overall, he’s no better than Blue, Pierce, or Tiant. (Or probably significantly worse than any of those three, but he has a cool nickname and a nice mustache.)

    “Hunter’s low WAA is partly because he threw his last pitch at 33. My friend Adam Darowski also said Hunter’s WAA is lower because he had elite defenses in Oakland and New York.”
    So, do we use WAA, or not? If we don’t like what the WAA states, do we discredit it? And that last pitch season contributed a NEGATIVE 1.4 WAA. Again, do we use WAA only when we like the results? And if a player is washed up at 32, do we pretend he was just as good as a similar pitcher who was still winning games at age 35?

    “Most of the other starting pitchers here, in fact, were part of marquee teams as well.”
    Since wins was/is a huge category in determining greatness, for right or wrong, this is no surprise that pitchers who benefited from playing on great teams would be overrated.

    “Joe Gordon is in the HOF why not Kent?”
    Ah, yes, the old “So and So is in so why can’t MY borderline candidate be in, too?” argument. It’s a beauty!

    “When Ralph begged Musial to talk to the Cardinal brass to trade for him–Musial asked him where would he play?”
    So, that’s an argument? I’ve never heard this before, and baseball history is my hobby. (I’m not denying this, I’m just saying I never heard it before.) And, gee, those three Cardinals weren’t Stan’s friends, were they? OK, so Slaughter is so great (just ask him, when he was alive) that he can’t play center, and Jerry Martin is more valuable than Ralph Kiner? (Even if the Pirates moved the left field fence 30 feet deeper the year after Kiner retired.)
    The guy who wrote the above argument REALLY needs to clarify himself—it just doesn’t make any sense. Jerry Martin? If he’s referring to Terry Moore, Moore was really only a Cardinal regular for ONE year during the Kiner era.

  8. Of course, the Hall of Fame is baseball’s *highest* honor. If there’s the possibility of one’s induction *ever* being revoked, that cheapens the honor considerably. Funny enough, because, say, basketball’s hall of fame for instance isn’t as highly regarded as baseball’s, it actually might be in their best interests to form a historical review committee and quietly remove several poor selections from their hall. In their case, the vast majority of players inducted are defensible choices, but there’s loads of “contributors” with rather specious contributions who’ve been honored. Basketball’s Hall of Fame was very much “good old boys inducting each other” in its early days, far more than Cooperstown ever was. (Someone like Paul Kerr, the longtime treasurer at Cooperstown and Veteran’s Committee member, would have been a shoo-in for induction at the Naismith Hall, as would Stephen C. Clark, the guy who put up the money to found the Baseball Hall).

  9. Here is Bill James’ recent take on this question:

    Hey Bill, I was thinking about High Pockets Kelly, and I wondered: why can’t someone who does not deserve the honor be expelled from the Hall of Fame?
    Asked by: Rcrout

    Answered: 11/20/2014
    Because to do so causes everyone else to wonder if the honor is temporary, and this diminishes the stature of the recognition.

  10. To Ray S., I’ve searched for this anecdote about Kiner wanted to be traded to the Cardinals, but can’t find anything on it. Not a thing. Please enlighten me.

    Furthermore, Kiner was treated like a king in Pittsburgh, until Rickey got there. (Rickey was correct, though–the Pirates COULD finish in last without Ralph, after trading him.) While the home run distance may have been shortened for Greenberg, they kept it for Kiner.

    BTW, Kiner was not a first ballot HOFer–he got in on his last ballot, gaining induction by one vote. But, forget huge errors of fact, I am REALLY interested in this Musial-Kiner thing. Thanks.

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